In 1893, a German seamstress named Margarete Steiff, founded a company that bears her name, and nowadays is the leader in plush teddy bears. Margarete's nephew Richard designed the first soft bear for his aunt, whose factory produced all kinds of toys at that time. Richard's idea for the bear came from the drawings he made from animals at the Stuttgart Zoo.
Steiff began making teddy bears as early as 1892, but the teddy bears, the company would become famous for, were made around the turn of the century. Among the zoo animals that Richard Steiff designed in 1902, was a bear with jointed arms and legs and it was code named 55PB. In 1903, the company sold 3,000 bears to Hermann Berg, a representative of Geo Borgfelt & Co., New York, USA. But otherwise there were not many Steiff animals sold. In America, however, the teddy bear was used by Clifford Berryman in his cartoon about President Theodore Roosevelt. This caused a run on teddy bears and this became the start of the bestselling toy by Steiff ever.
In 1904, Richard Steiff travelled to the World's Fair in St. Louis, USA, where he discovered a bear craze. The Steiff bear won the "Grand Prix" at the exposition, while Richard and his aunt Margarete received a gold medal. Because of this, sales of teddy bears increased phenomenal. The original teddy bear had internal rods for arms, legs and head movements. Later a cuddlier version was made with internal discs for the limbs and a ball joint for the head.
To distinguish their product from the many cheap goods, Steiff patented the 'Knopf im Ohr' or 'Button-in-Ear' trademark in 1904. Since that time, all Steiff animals have an embossed button in their left ear. The first buttons were blank, but from 1906 onwards, most buttons feature the Steiff name.
Around and during the two world wars there was a shortage of raw materials, in which Steiff was forced to use cheaper alternatives. During the First World War, the German borders were closed. The Steiff employees then made military equipment such as gas masks and hand grenade handles. Between the two world wars, the market revived again, with as high point the acquisition of the Disney license for Mickey and Minnie Mouse in 1930. During the Second World War, materials and manpower were so scarce that production had to be stopped. It was 1946 before Steiff resumed production with a ten-item line of stuffed toys. During the Allied occupation of Germany after World War II, toys had a special "U.S. Zone tag" in the arm seam.
Teddy bears evolved rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s, to meet changing tastes. Shorter limbs, rounder faces, softer bodies and modern materials characterize the post-war creations. In the next few decades, Steiff's range of plush animals grew with familiar and exotic species. Late 1990s, the range included nearly 15,000 different stuffed animals.
See a photo report of our trip to the factory of Steiff in Giengen.
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The 'button in ear' trademark was first introduced in 1904, which originally had an elephant in relief on it . In 1905 the Steiff ear button was patented, and the elephant was dropped for the company's name. From 1908-1909 a material label was added , and from 1926 a paper label on the chest of the Teddy Bear.
Did you know that...
- Steiff had his own board game in 2002.
- In 2008 Steiff made a special teddy bear, designed by Karl Lagerfeld, it looks exactly like its creator.
- Steiff made five Paddington teddy bears.
- Together with Swarovski, Steiff made some excellent jewellery.
Teddy bear examples
left: year: 1905, height: 16"/41cm, a cinnamon coloured, very valuable Teddy Bear with middle seam.
middle: year: 1909, height: 16"/41cm, name: Edelweiss, has a metal ear button on relief.
right: year: ±1950, height: 11"/28cm, a Steiff Zotty from the fifties, very popular with collectors.
left: year: 1903, height: 15"/38cm, name: Christian Gabriel, this bear has a metal frame inside and is one of the most sought after Steiff-bears.
middle: year: ±1905,height: 27"/70cm, very rare, because of his soft stuffing.
right: year: ±1905, height: 16"/40cm, popular Steiff-bear with middle-seam.
Steiff teddy bear prices
Steiff teddy bears are popular with collectors. Very old teddy bears from around 1910, but also newer bears make good prices at auction. For an impression if your old teddy is worth anything, we have put together a list of some Steiff teddy bears and their value.